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Grilling for high steaks

The Smokin’ Elk gave up a good job in IT to follow his live-fire dream. RUPERT BATES heads to BBQ School in Hampshire to find the gamble paying off

 Rupert Bates   Autumn 2022

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 #TheSmokinElk #BBQSchool

 
 

 

 

There was an agenda for the day. The students were there to learn about ceramic BBQs, what charcoal to use and how to light it, airflow and clean smoke, heat deflectors and temperature control.

“Right, who wants a beer?” asked Elky Whittaker by way of welcome. Instantly the class relaxed – even if it was the morning hour when coffee is usually the drink offered. 

We gather at his BBQ shack in the Hampshire village of Cowplain, decorated with the distinct red ceramic grills of the Kamado Joe family, a bruising barbecue unit from The Braai Man, Masterbuilt and Kamado Space, not forgetting a fridge stocked with beer and flanked by oak barrels. All that was missing was Elky’s beloved Portsmouth on the shack’s television screen – a League One football club in a Premier League outdoor kitchen. 

This is not just his ‘happy place’ it is the new Smokin Elk’ BBQ School and Elky is a giant of the grill in every sense, with a personality to match. The class, after a quick tour of his BBQ accessories, starts with chicken wings, direct cooking on the Kamado Joe and making a dry rub, mixing in paprika, cumin, onion, garlic and chilli powder, as well as salt, pepper and brown sugar.

While a familiar face on the live-fire scene as part of the Kamado Joe fire squad at events such as Pub in the Park and creating dynamic digital cooking content on his social media channels, Elky made the massive decision earlier this year to give up his day job to cook and teach full time.


“I worked in IT sales for 20 years. I was good at it and built a successful career. I loved working for my last employer Total Computer Networks and could work from home, giving me a flexible work/life balance,” says Elky.

“The decision to leave was huge, but it was the right time. I had my best year last year, earning a decent pay rise and then quit. Madness! But sitting in my new shack on a nice sunny day in April, filming with my production guys, it just hit me – this is what I want to do now.”

The next morning he crunched some numbers, typed up a letter of resignation and that was it. “My wife Emily didn’t even know until I’d done it as she had taken my two-year-old son Joe swimming! I’m very impulsive. Once I get an idea in my head and I feel it’s the right one, I’ll just go for it. It’s worked so far!”

 

 

Another mouth to feed came along in July with the arrival of baby daughter Suzanna, giving even more impetus to Elky’s decision and bubbling with enthusiasm, professionalism and humour it is impossible not to be excited by his road ahead. The computer world’s loss is the barbecue community’s gain and it is refreshing to see a raft of live-fire cooks, bristling with talent and burning with culinary ambition, taking the plunge and going full-time. 

Elky, who left home at 16, has always enjoyed cooking, initially simply making the most of what was in the kitchen cupboard.

“I progressed to curries and chillies. BBQ was always there in the background, albeit rusty old cheap gas barbecues that I would replace each year, cooking the standard sausages, burgers and butcher packs.”

Then he started watching cooking shows such as Man v. Food and wanted to sample what was been eaten in the American series. Unable to find UK restaurants serving the bigger carnivorous challenges he craved, Elky decided to learn how to cook them himself.

“Plenty of trial and error and lots of disasters and then I set myself the task of 200 outdoor cooks in a year, which I completed five years ago.”

He went further, a lot further – in fact around the world, cooking a dish from every country, outdoors over fire and all within a year.

“I started the challenge on 1 January 2019 and completed it on 31 December 2019 – a total of 195 countries. I loved every minute of it, but it was certainly challenging as I wanted to stay as authentic as possible to each country’s dish that I chose.”

The last nation on New Year’s Eve, cooking for family and friends, was Argentina, with skirt steak and chimichurri, planked salmon, chicken wings, goat chops and, as the clock ticked towards midnight, a whole lamb cooked asado style over fire. 

“It was epic and I learnt so much, both about cooking with fire and, of course, the food and the different ingredients,” says Elky, as our BBQ class moves onto jerk chicken and pineapple salsa wraps, brushing the pineapple fingers on the grill with a honey and soy glaze.

“I’m using boneless, skinless thighs. You can dice and add to skewers or thread onto a rotisserie.” He cooks the chicken on the Kamado Joe using a split-level method, starting with the intense heat from the lower zone, then moving up to the higher zone. “They are ready when the internal temperature hits 73°C,” says Elky, using and extolling the virtues of his Thermapen temperature probe.

“I’m very lucky to have good long-term relationships with some great brands that I love, such as Kamado Joe and Thermapen, creating regular content for them on YouTube and Instagram. I love getting out and about, putting on a bit of a fire cooking show while meeting lots of enthusiastic people who want to learn more.”


As well as expanding his already very popular BBQ School, Elky is looking to run pop-ups, as well as cater for private events, corporate team building days, weddings, birthdays and even stag and hen parties, where his ‘open all hours’ drinks fridge will doubtless prove quite a draw!

“It’s a very exciting time for British BBQ. During lockdown, you obviously couldn’t go out, so people started to concentrate on their own outdoor space and I think that will continue. Outdoor kitchens and BBQ shacks are popping up and, for me, there’s no better outdoor activity than firing up the BBQ or fire pit and having a cook and a cold beer.  

“But it’s not just sausages and burgers anymore. People want to make the most of their barbecue. I have people from all over the country coming to my classes and it’s so rewarding when you see them taking ideas and advice on board, knowing that it’s helping to get them hooked on outdoor cooking. And once you’re hooked, you want to cook more, improving with every cook, getting more adventurous and, before you know it, you’re cooking everything you possibly can outdoors and encouraging others to do the same. It’s great to see.”

Now we move on to a classic – steak and chimichurri sauce. “We’re using the reverse sear method, so we bring the steak up to temperature nice and slowly, before finishing over intense heat.” 

Elky advocates salt at the start, pepper at the end and urges the class not to be shy with seasoning. “With the tomahawks, add a thin layer of oil then salt them liberally.”

Time for the heat deflectors and a chunk of cherry wood for that smoky flavour. “Once we have clean smoke, the steaks go in.”

We take the tomahawks off when they hit 45°C to rest and open all the Kamado Joe vents so the grill is hot enough to sear the steaks (400°C). Back go the steaks, which we flip, before removing at around 50°C. Once rested, they will hit medium rare.

I have got my eyes on the chimichurri, with the parsley, garlic, chilli, flaky salt, pepper, oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar transporting me to the Pampas. 

Despite the wealth of food created and devoured at the class, Elky’s favourite BBQ food remains the burger.

“You can cook expensive steaks, a 12-hour brisket, or cook a whole lamb over fire, but I’ll always go back to a good burger. When done right, there’s nothing better.”

It looks like Elky’s gamble to go full time on the grills is paying off. He has gambled before on the poker table with conspicuous success and once won £13,000 playing in an online tournament. If Elky invites you to dinner, it is a resounding yes. If he then suggests a game of cards, offer to do the washing up.


 


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